Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

The Commitment to Afghanistan

The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

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The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

Assuming the accord is actually signed and implemented, it will bolster Afghanistan’s prospects for the future and hurt the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies who are scheming to return to power. The Obama administration deserves credit for prolonging what is already an unpopular military commitment even if there is cause for concern about the size of the force the president is prepared to send. No decisions have been reached, but news accounts suggest that Obama is contemplating sending only 4,000 to 8,000 personnel to perform counter-terrorism and advisory work, and that none of the advisors will be deployed in the field where they could be most effective.

It is a mystery where this figure comes from since military commanders have recommended a bare minimum of 13,000 or so troops. For some reason Obama seems to think that a much smaller force can get the job done-just as he though a smaller force would suffice when he granted only 30,000 or so of the 40,000 troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested in 2009. (Obama also added a timeline for their deployment, which the military resisted and which hurt the chances of mission accomplishment even more.) Such minor differences in force size will in no way temper domestic political opposition to the mission, but they can have an impact on the prospects of mission success on the ground.

It’s hard to know why Obama is willing to take a courageous stand for a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan yet refuses to send the right size force. But whatever the president’s reasoning, at least he has not adopted the “zero option” favored by his advisers. The decision to commit the U.S. to Afghanistan post 2014–assuming it holds up–at least gives that war-ravaged country a fighting chance to hold off the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other malignant actors.

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Drug Report Bad News for Afghanistan

I’m a little late to the story because I’ve been on the road, but the most recent United Nations report on drug cultivation in Afghanistan should be cause for concern about what happens in Afghanistan as transition looms. Afghanistan already produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the UN now reports that opium cultivation is up by around 50 percent, while land being used for cultivation is at record levels. The situation is more worrisome because opium prices are already high and because the cultivation is not only in areas from which U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn, but also in locations theoretically under NATO control.

Because the United States military believes—correctly—that opium cultivation funds insurgency and lawlessness, the fact that the trajectory of Afghan cultivation is upwards bodes poorly for stability as transition looms. Nor should Americans take solace in the fact that some provinces which previously grew tons of opium—Badakshan, for example—no longer do, because many of these supposedly poppy-free northern provinces have simply turned to marijuana, which can be just as profitable. Afghans further say that they believe the opium crop in the coming year—planting is already under way—will be even higher.

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I’m a little late to the story because I’ve been on the road, but the most recent United Nations report on drug cultivation in Afghanistan should be cause for concern about what happens in Afghanistan as transition looms. Afghanistan already produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the UN now reports that opium cultivation is up by around 50 percent, while land being used for cultivation is at record levels. The situation is more worrisome because opium prices are already high and because the cultivation is not only in areas from which U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn, but also in locations theoretically under NATO control.

Because the United States military believes—correctly—that opium cultivation funds insurgency and lawlessness, the fact that the trajectory of Afghan cultivation is upwards bodes poorly for stability as transition looms. Nor should Americans take solace in the fact that some provinces which previously grew tons of opium—Badakshan, for example—no longer do, because many of these supposedly poppy-free northern provinces have simply turned to marijuana, which can be just as profitable. Afghans further say that they believe the opium crop in the coming year—planting is already under way—will be even higher.

There is a tendency among Afghan policymakers to treat missions individually rather than holistically. I’ve sat through discussions of planning for Afghanistan’s April 2014 elections, and other discussions addressing the logistics of moving equipment out of Afghanistan. Drug cultivation and “green-on-blue” violence are another topic, planning for which often fails to take into account other topics.

One thing is certain: pundits can debate the merits of the surge, and diplomats can praise the transition plans underway, never mind that both the surge and the transition seem to be ripped right out of the Soviet Union’s 1988 and 1989 playbook. The White House and Pentagon can praise the understanding reached with President Karzai, never mind that the miniscule numbers of troops won’t be able to do much beyond secure the capital, if that. The facts on the ground—of which opium cultivation is one of many—give very little reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future and stability once the NATO presence is reduced to the point of ineffectiveness.

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Don’t Blame Maliki for Iraq Violence

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

There are two schools of thought with regard to terrorism. The first sees terrorism’s roots in grievance, and the second in ideology. Those who subscribe to the grievance-based approach believe if a grievance is addressed, the cause for terrorism goes away. I’d argue far more of the Iraq-based insurgents root their terrorism more in an absolutist ideology. To accept the grievance-based philosophy is a bit dangerous as well, not only because it legitimizes some terrorism but also because terrorists and other rogues know the susceptibility of Western diplomats to declarations of real or contrived grievance, and it simply encourages some elements of society to stake out ever more extreme positions.

When it comes to Iraq, Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The surge was wise military strategy, but it was at times politically short-sighted, especially as some elements concluded that the shortest path to empowerment was the appeasement that followed violence rather than the ballot box. Indeed, the most extreme sectarian parties fared poorly in the most recent provincial polls; they were beat out by more moderate parties.

It is also dangerous to suggest that Iraqi security forces should not have sought to arrest Tariq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi if valid evidence against the two prominent Sunni politicians existed and, indeed, ample evidence exists. Being a Sunni politician should never lead to a free pass for terrorism. That Issawi is already paying blood money to those who his guards murdered suggests there may be something to the charges. Maliki should certainly target those leading Shiite death squads with the same fervor. While I would like to see Muqtada al-Sadr behind bars one day—and believe one of the Bush administration’s greatest mistakes in Iraq was not authorizing the shot when Muqtada al-Sadr was in the crosshairs—Maliki has dispatched his forces to take on Shiite militias in Basra and elsewhere.

Maliki may have flaws—though I cannot think of a single Iraqi politician (or American politician for that matter) that does not. But he has guided Iraq well through some turbulent times against the backdrop of a cabinet that as often answers more to political bosses outside the government rather than to the prime minister. Despite frequent accusations to the contrary, he does not cultivate a personality cult. Other Iraqi politicians do, however, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr and some Kurdish regional leaders. He is hardly authoritarian as his opponents too often seek to paint him because Iraqi political rhetoric still tends toward exaggeration. That said, Maliki should be held accountable, but that accountability should come first and foremost from the Iraqi people in the 2014 elections and not by an American administration which has largely abandoned Iraq hastily passing judgment. A major flaw of U.S. policy toward both Iraq and Afghanistan has been prioritizing personality over system. It is time to respect the system.

The United States should seek close ties with Baghdad. Not only would that enable Baghdad to better resist Iranian pressure, but it would also enable American businesses to take advantage of the growing Iraqi market. Long-term defense cooperation—for example, with regard to provision of the F-16 fighters Iraq seeks—would also help Iraq protect itself in a hostile neighborhood and would create a framework for decades of exchanges and interaction. It would make it harder for the Iranian government to try to run roughshod over Iraqi sensitivities. Such decisions should be based on American interests and Iraqi needs, not frustration with the outcome of the 2010 Iraqi elections or misdirected personal animus toward Maliki himself.

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Is Iraq’s Present Afghanistan’s Future?

Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

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Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan? It’s too soon to say, but there is cause for concern when one reads articles like this one in the New York Times today reporting that “NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American.” That translates into 5,300 to 8,000 U.S. troops, considerably below the 13,600 that Gen. Jim Mattis, former commander of Central Command, estimated to be necessary–and that itself was a low-ball estimate in the judgment of many military experts.

At some point there is a real risk of Afghan politicos, like their Iraqi counterparts, deciding there is no point in having their sovereignty violated and being exposed to anti-American criticism in return for a token force that can accomplish little. If that were to happen, the future of Afghanistan isn’t hard to imagine. Just look at Iraq today–only Afghanistan will probably be worse off because it faces a more malignant insurgency with more entrenched cross-border bases and its government and security forces are weaker than their Iraqi counterparts.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

Before he stepped down at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis testified that it would be necessary to keep 13,600 US troops in Afghanistan post-2014 along with some 6,000 allied forces. That strikes me as a pretty barebones commitment, given the US need to station forces not only in Kabul but also in southern and eastern Afghanistan so as to continue Special Operations raids against Al Qaeda, Haqqani, and other terrorists.

Yet the leaks emanating from the White House suggest that Obama will dispatch fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops–perhaps many fewer. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect because the European commitment will be contingent on the size of the American commitment: the fewer American troops, the fewer NATO troops.

The Afghan security forces have shown they are capable of holding back the Taliban largely on their own this fighting season, but they are suffering heavy casualties, and they remain dependent on American forces for critical functions such as medical evacuation of wounded personnel. Without medevac on call–along with intelligence, logistics, and other support–there is a real risk that the Afghan forces will crumble under an unrelenting Taliban assault.

A few U.S. troops are better than none, but unless Obama is willing to carry out the best advice of his generals and maintain a substantial American contingent after 2014, their usefulness will be limited. Unfortunately Obama hasn’t been much for taking military advice since he decided to accelerate the withdrawal of surge forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 in contravention of Gen. David Petraeus’s recommendations.

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Heading for the Exits in Afghanistan

For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

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For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

One official noted that both Obama and Rice appear only marginally interested as attention has shifted to Syria and a growing al-Qaeda presence in Africa.

“If you look at the threat matrix,” this official said, “Afghanistan isn’t blinking the brightest. Why invest more billions and more lives?”

This lack of interest on the American side is at the crux of the current impasse, although Hamid Karzai has contributed his share to the current woes with statements blasting the U.S. and the West in intemperate terms. But, according to press reports, Karzai actually agreed to grant U.S. troops immunity under Afghan laws–the issue that scuppered an agreement with Iraq.

Apparently, if the reporting is to be believed, the big issue at the moment is his demand that the U.S. conclude a mutual-defense treaty with Afghanistan similar to those with major non-NATO allies. The Obama administration disingenuously claims this would mandate U.S. troops crossing into Pakistan. More plausibly, this would simply demand a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s defense, within Afghanistan, which the administration doesn’t want to grant.

There is also disagreement over how much room for unilateral operations in Afghanistan U.S. Special Operations forces will retain in hunting down al-Qaeda and its ilk. Karzai wants the mission turned over to Afghan forces, which the U.S. is resisting, even though his demand could be finessed by putting Afghans in the lead with U.S. troops along as “advisers,” a practice becoming increasingly common today anyway.

It is possible these issues will be resolved by Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Kabul. But I am not terribly optimistic because I think significant elements of the administration, starting at the top, are looking for a way out of Afghanistan and they are using disputes with Karzai as an excuse. The president who once called Afghanistan the necessary war appears to be motivated now primarily by the necessity of disengagement, at least as he sees it.

The results for U.S. interests and for Afghanistan are likely to be dire, because if U.S. troops leave, so will our NATO allies. And the U.S. and its allies will be unlikely to continue pouring in the billions of dollars necessary to keep the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government functioning. That makes a collapse, of the kind that occurred after the Soviet withdrawal, much more likely–and with it a return of the Taliban and Haqqanis and their al-Qaeda allies.

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The Temptation of Relying on Anti-Terror Raids

The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

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The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

That is a much-needed message to send, and it helps in a small way to begin undoing some of the damage from Obama’s vacillation over Syria, which signaled American confusion and retreat. But, while important and welcome, Special Operations raids and drone strikes will not by themselves win the war on terror. That is why, even as these surgical strikes have proliferated in recent years, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have spread their reach further than ever. To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own.

The U.S. track record in this regard is mixed. Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya. Libya has not been nearly as successful, because the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.  

The situation is even worse in Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq has managed to revive itself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Violence rates have soared back to 2008 levels, while al-Qaeda in Iraq has also exported its operations to neighboring Syria, where the U.S. seems to have no strategy for rolling back gains being made by both Shiite and Sunni extremists.

The picture in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is mixed: The U.S. has made a massive troop commitment to bolster the government in Kabul, but it is not clear if the U.S. will maintain any forces after 2014 to build on the gains that have been made. The latest news reports indicate that the White House is once again threatening to pull all U.S. troops if an impasse over the terms of their deployment is not resolved. If the “zero option” does come to pass, it risks undoing everything that U.S. troops have fought for.

So by all means send out the special operators to collar or kill the bad guys. That is risky but necessary. But also remember that this is only one “line of operation” in a larger strategy that we desperately need to counter the continuing growth of Islamist extremism.

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Accountability in the Marines

For a long time there has been too little accountability for general officers in the armed forces. They are seldom relieved for failure to do a good job even though a similar failure to perform can result in severe penalties for those lower down the chain of command. Those with stars on their shoulders can usually expect a gilded march to retirement unless they commit gross malfeasance, especially if sexual misconduct charges are involved.

That’s why it is refreshing to see the Marine commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, fire two generals for negligence in a 2012 Taliban attack on a marine airfield in Afghanistan which resulted in the destruction of six Harrier jump jets and the deaths of two Marines. As the Washington Post reports:

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For a long time there has been too little accountability for general officers in the armed forces. They are seldom relieved for failure to do a good job even though a similar failure to perform can result in severe penalties for those lower down the chain of command. Those with stars on their shoulders can usually expect a gilded march to retirement unless they commit gross malfeasance, especially if sexual misconduct charges are involved.

That’s why it is refreshing to see the Marine commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, fire two generals for negligence in a 2012 Taliban attack on a marine airfield in Afghanistan which resulted in the destruction of six Harrier jump jets and the deaths of two Marines. As the Washington Post reports:

The two, Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, the top Marine commander in southern Afghanistan at the time, and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior Marine aviation officer in the area, “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank,” Amos said.

“It was unrealistic to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence,” Amos said.

In their defense, Gurganus and Sturdevant could argue that the attack occurred at a time of a general drawdown in Afghanistan and that their requests for additional marines to safeguard the airbase were denied because commanders were bound by President Obama’s ill-advised “cap” on overall troop numbers. That was true, but Amos judged that it was no excuse for failing to secure such an important base.

It was no easy call for the commandant to make, given that he has known both men for decades. But it was the right call, and it should send a signal of accountability that ordinary soldiers and marines–who often grouse about lack of accountability for higher-ups–will welcome.

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The Mistaken Focus on “Core Al-Qaeda”

President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

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President Obama may or may not be right when he claims, as he often does, that “the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is on the way to defeat.” But it is clear that the broader movement of violent Islamism, which has been identified with al-Qaeda but which is actually much broader, is far from defeated.

Consider just the terrible news of the past weekend.

In Nairobi, a squad of gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabab have massacred at least 68 people in an upscale mall while holding others hostage–an attack reminiscent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, of the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008.

In Iraq, one suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in Baghdad, killing at least 16 and wounding more than 30, while another blew up in a residential area of Kirkuk, wounding at least 35 people. These are the latest in a series of terrible attacks in Iraq, which, according to the Associated Press, have seen “more than 4,000 people … killed between April and August, a level of carnage not seen since 2006 to 2008, when Iraq was nearing civil war.”

Yet another suicide attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed at least 78 people, including 34 women and seven children, at a church. This was presumably the handiwork of the Pakistani Taliban.

Oh, and two Israeli soldiers were slain in the West Bank, one by a sniper, the other by a duplicitous Palestinian acquaintance.

All of these attacks do not suggest that Islamist groups are on their way to seizing power in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. Indeed, the Shabab attack was, in many ways, a sign of the group’s weakness in Somalia, where it has suffered defeats on the ground from Kenyan and African Union troops. Shabab is turning to terrorist attacks against soft targets in Uganda and Kenya to remain relevant.

But what these attacks show is that Islamist groups–some of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, others not–are far from defeated. They still have considerable capacity to wreak carnage and, given the weakness of regimes that are fighting them across the Middle East and Africa, they can make substantial inroads into failed states.

President Obama and the American national security establishment have been too focused on “core” al-Qaeda while downplaying the menace from these other groups on the periphery, which continue to pose as big a threat as ever.

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Why the Russian “Reset” Failed

Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

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Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

Putin’s impatience was bottled up during the administration of Dmitry Medvedev, when the Kremlin pretended Putin wasn’t in charge. But that bottle was uncorked the moment Putin retook the throne. Baker’s piece begins with a story about how, days before Putin was to formally resume his presidency in 2012, Obama’s national security hand Tom Donilon was dispatched to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with him. Putin opened the discussion with a question: “When are you going to start bombing Syria?”

Baker was savvy enough to lead off his piece with this incident presumably because he understands the degree to which that one sentence sums up the rocky relationship between Obama and Putin. The two leaders have at least one personality trait in common: they both devote an inordinate amount of attention to appearances. But it’s this shared concern that sabotages the bilateral ties. Obama wants to present the appearance of a man who prioritizes thoughtful engagement and cross-cultural understanding. Putin wants you to know he just shot this Siberian tiger.

The Obama White House was naïve; to their credit, some in the administration are willing to admit this, even if anonymously–though you have to wait to the end of the article for it:

But Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves; it was never meant to transform Russia into an American-style democracy or eliminate all areas of friction. “We probably overestimated the shared-interest angle,” said one official.

The goal now is to keep it from sliding much further. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better any time soon,” said a former administration official. “In fact, I think the potential for something worse is pretty high.”

In their attempt to fool the public they fooled themselves instead, though they never fooled Putin for a moment. Elsewhere, Baker writes: “The arrival of [Edward] Snowden in Moscow, coming on top of anger over a new Russian law against pro-gay ‘propaganda,’ was nothing more than a final death blow to the reset.” The reset had been dead a while, but apparently the president was the last to know.

Being nicer to the Kremlin in public didn’t win Obama any good will from Putin because Putin doesn’t believe in notions like good will having any place in international affairs. Do you have something he wants? Does he have something you want? Those are questions he has time for. Anything else is nonsense. Putin is nobody’s therapist and he’s nobody’s pen pal. He has a state to run, human rights to violate, and a major asset in the Middle East that is embroiled in a nasty civil war. By the way, that reminds him: when are you going to bomb Syria?

This doesn’t mean that Putin is a realist–he is an authoritarian thug. But neither is Obama a realist–the reset was plainly and transparently a fantasy. White House aides in the story talk up the “successes” of the reset, the latest START treaty foremost among them. But START was a bland distraction from the real nuclear proliferation-related issues and thus a waste of political capital. In Obama’s limited defense, though, it’s clear his lack of experience and nonexistent relationship with Congress meant he had no idea he’d have to spend political capital on it in the first place. As Baker reports:

The highest-profile victory was their treaty called New Start, paring the legal ceilings for deployed strategic warheads by a third and launchers by half. But it proved to be more of a slog than Mr. Obama and his team expected. “We thought Start was going to be easy, we really did,” said a former official. “And it turned out to be very, very hard.”

This also raises the question of how much credit the reset can take for even modest, debatable “successes.” Here is the lasting legacy of the reset, from the administration’s point of view:

Obama advisers argue it worked in a way by restoring relations after the rift over the Georgia war. There are areas of cooperation even now. Moscow has not reneged on the New Start treaty or the Afghanistan supply route.

This is when defending the reset begins to veer from naïve to delusional. If you think Moscow cooperated on Afghanistan because Obama was nice to Putin and not because it meant having coalition forces bear the responsibility for containing the Afghan tribal wars and drug trade, you haven’t paid much attention to Putin’s policy in Central Asia.

And perhaps neither had Obama, but that appears to have changed. Administration advisors–named and anonymous, current and former–may argue over the details, but no one seems to be making the case that the reset is still in play. Baker’s article represents the administration’s acknowledgement of reality, a welcome shift in perspective–though it remains to be seen if it also heralds a change in policy.

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Why Everyone’s Talking About John Sopko

If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

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If you read this morning’s edition of three of our prominent national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, you may have noticed something: the sudden necessity of talking about a man named John Sopko. The Times and the Post each run different-but-not-really pieces intended to profile Sopko and his work. The Journal takes a slightly different tack, talking about Sopko through the most recent and newsworthy aspects of his work.

So who is John Sopko? Here is the Times’s lede: “John F. Sopko is a 61-year-old former prosecutor who believes ‘embarrassing people works.’ ” But the Kabul dateline is the tipoff. Sopko is in Afghanistan as the inspector general for American-led reconstruction efforts. He is in charge of keeping the bureaucracy honest, and he is not well-liked by his compatriots there; the Post calls him the “the bane of the existence of American bureaucrats scrambling to bring the war to a dignified end.” What Sopko is finding out firsthand is that political leaders love to talk–and often, only talk–about rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in any system. Everyone loves the idea of oversight.

Sopko also clearly knows the value of publicity. The coincidental placement of A-Section stories on him in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the same day is testament to that. But Sopko’s penchant for publicity doesn’t endear him to those under his watchful gaze. In fact, it seems his profiles were, in part at least, a result of his need to push back on the grumbling inspired, in circular fashion, by his need for publicity. As the Times explains:

He and his team spend their days cataloging the waste, mismanagement and fraud that have plagued American reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Then they go out and publicize what they have found — aggressively. If they upset the generals and diplomats running the war, so much the better. Most officials “would love to have it all triple-wrapped in paper, classified and slipped under a door so it goes away — then they don’t have to do anything,” he said during a recent interview.

He added, “I’m into accountability.”

Sopko also sat for an interview with the Post, and they paint much the same picture:

“I didn’t take this job to be liked at the State Department or USAID or the Department of Defense,” he said in an interview. “We’re the umpire. My job is to call strikes.”

Bureaucratic battles within America’s wars are legion. But none has played out quite this publicly, and all sides agree that the stakes could hardly be higher. To a large extent, the U.S. ability to disengage smoothly from Afghanistan and retain influence after combat troops leave — by the end of 2014 — will depend on the work U.S. agencies are able to accomplish, as well as the amount of political will and confidence in the mission they can engender.

But it’s the Journal article that seems to do the most to legitimize the Times and Post articles. The Journal has always tended to take a slightly different approach to the same stories other papers cover, and in this case the Journal’s article on Sopko is a perfect companion piece to the others.

The Post explains that the office of inspector general for Afghan reconstruction had alternated between ridicule and vacancy. Sopko came in and fired up his staff, warning that the clock was ticking on the mission. The Journal article offers one example of the misbehavior uncovered by the newly energized office under Sopko’s leadership:

American anticorruption officials are investigating an alleged criminal ring working for U.S. Special Operations Command in southern Afghanistan that may have defrauded the U.S. government of more than $77 million, according to court documents and government officials.

Federal officials have frozen $63 million held in bank accounts around the world linked to a young Afghan businessman who allegedly bribed two foreign contractors to secure contracts to transport food and fuel for the U.S. military in southern Afghanistan, according to documents unsealed by the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

The Afghan, Hikmatullah Shadman, is at the center of a continuing investigation that also could ensnare Americans working for the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, said John Sopko, the special U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

“We’re not done with this matter in the least,” said Mr. Sopko, who spearheaded the legal action to freeze and seize Mr. Shadman’s bank accounts.

As Max Boot and Michael Rubin have written numerous times here at COMMENTARY, there is both the need and the ability to clean up Western efforts in Afghanistan. On that note, I think it’s worth restating Michael’s point from February on corruption and USAID waste/mismanagement in Afghanistan: “Terrorism impacts a small number of people, but corruption is a cancer on a whole society.”

That is exactly right, and that seems to be Sopko’s perspective. He has taken on a sense of urgency as well because the mission is indeed running low on time. I don’t think many of those complaining about Sopko’s intensity or publicity-seeking fully appreciate just how much of a black eye it will be for America’s reputation if after a decade-long nation building project we leave behind well-fed corruption rings and warlords with deeper pockets as our legacy. There is only so much control our agencies have, of course, in Afghanistan. But surely conducting themselves with transparency and integrity is not too much to ask.

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The Next Reset: U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

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Fresh off one overhyped “achievement”–forcing a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that have scant chance of success–Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently eager to achieve any empty triumph, namely a “reset” of relations with Pakistan. In article previewing his trip to Pakistan this week, the Wall Street Journal writes that “it provides an opportunity, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, to recast a relationship that in the past decade has been defined by massive U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Washington’s global antiterror campaign. The U.S. withdrawal, these officials say, will set the stage for a relationship with reduced engagement but also less rancor.”

Good luck with that. Granted, having fewer U.S. troops and civilians available in Afghanistan to serve as targets for Pakistan-supported terrorists will reduce a flashpoint in the relationship, but it is hard to see Washington and Islamabad finding much common ground. Their interests converge in very few areas, the biggest being the desire by both sides to prevent the Pakistani Taliban from seizing power in Islamabad, which would cut off Pakistan’s existing political and military class from the trough of public spending on which it has grown rich. But there is no indication that Pakistan will give up its support of the Afghan Taliban or the even more noxious Haqqani Network and other Islamist terrorist groups that are viewed by Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, as reliable proxies in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and beyond.

Back in 2011 there was a rare moment of candor in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, normally wrapped in self-serving lies from both sides, when Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bitterly denounced Pakistani complicity in terror. “In choosing to use violent extremism as an instrument of policy, the government of Pakistan – and most especially the Pakistani Army and ISI – jeopardizes not only the prospect of our strategic partnership, but also Pakistan’s opportunity to be a respected nation with legitimate regional influence,” he told the Senate. “By exporting violence, they have eroded their internal security and their position in the region.”

Mullen was right then and nothing has changed today. Pakistan has been happy to pocket nearly $26 billion in U.S. aid between 2002 and 2012 and in return has provided some small concessions such as allowing NATO supplies to cross its territory (with some interruptions) and allowing CIA drones to target al-Qaeda kingpins (with some limitations). But fundamentally the two countries remain far apart on major issues such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. would like to see the continuation of a pro-Western, reasonably democratic regime and the Pakistanis in all likelihood are hoping for a Taliban takeover. Kerry’s visit will change nothing, no matter how many headlines it produces about a supposedly improved relationship.

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Crocker Pans the “Zero Option”

Leave it to Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador in Kabul, Islamabad, and Baghdad, among other capitals, and the greatest diplomat of his generation, to offer the definitive verdict on the “zero option”–the zany plan being floated by the White House to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after 2014. This is what Crocker told foreign policy columnist Trudy Rubin:

If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.

Nothing could encourage the Taliban more. The Pakistanis [who are helping the Taliban] will dig in harder. It will send Karzai in completely the wrong direction.

It invokes memories of the early 1990s. It’s as if we’re telling the Afghans, ‘We’re tired, we’re going home, screw you.’

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Leave it to Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador in Kabul, Islamabad, and Baghdad, among other capitals, and the greatest diplomat of his generation, to offer the definitive verdict on the “zero option”–the zany plan being floated by the White House to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan after 2014. This is what Crocker told foreign policy columnist Trudy Rubin:

If it’s a tactic, it is mindless; if it is a strategy, it is criminal.

Nothing could encourage the Taliban more. The Pakistanis [who are helping the Taliban] will dig in harder. It will send Karzai in completely the wrong direction.

It invokes memories of the early 1990s. It’s as if we’re telling the Afghans, ‘We’re tired, we’re going home, screw you.’

The only thing one can add to this cogent and pithy summary is that it is not only the Afghans who will be “screwed” by American withdrawal–we would be screwing ourselves. The primary reason why are in Afghanistan, after all, is not as a service to Hamid Karzai or even to promote human rights but, rather, to allow us to effectively target the terrorist groups responsible for 9/11 and many smaller outrages.

Few would disagree with our need to maintain intelligence assets and drones in Afghanistan that allow us to strike our most vicious enemies–most famously in the case of the raid on Osama bin Laden which took off from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. But our ability to maintain those intelligence assets in Afghanistan is contingent on our ability to maintain the support of the Afghan government for this continuing deployment and on the ability of that government to maintain a modicum of security to allow CIA spooks and military special operators to function. That is now being cast into doubt by the drawdown.

The Washington Post‘s Greg Miller reports that “the CIA has begun closing clandestine bases in Afghanistan.” Current plans are to reduce the number of CIA bases from a total of a dozen to six or so by the end of 2014. But even the ability to maintain those six is contingent on military support since most of the CIA installations are in close proximity to U.S. military bases and depend on U.S. military support for logistics, security, and other requirements to augment the CIA’s limited capabilities in those regards.

The Post notes: “A full withdrawal of U.S. troops would probably trigger a deeper retrenchment by the CIA, which has relied on U.S. and allied military installations across the country to serve as bases for agency operatives and cover for their spying operations. The CIA’s armed drones are flown from a heavily fortified airstrip near the Pakistan border in Jalalabad.”

In all likelihood, if the U.S. refuses to support and train the Afghan military, the government of Afghanistan will tell the CIA and Special Operations Command to get lost–Afghanistan is not going to act as a platform for American strikes on America’s enemies if we are not providing a valuable service to Kabul in return.

In short, a zero option would amount to not only no conventional troops but few if any spies and commandos. That is an utterly unwarranted gift to the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, the Pakistan Taliban, and other dangerous extremist groups.

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Buying into the Myth of “Easy War”

H.R. McMaster is one of the smartest generals in the army–or any other service–and his thoughts on the future of war are always worth listening to. Let us hope that policy makers take to heart his New York Times op-ed piece, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” which points out that the Rumsfeldian illusion that war can be fought successfully with lots of technology and few troops is alive and well, and ironically is being championed by some of the former defense secretary’s most acerbic critics.

“Today,” McMaster notes, “budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations.”

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H.R. McMaster is one of the smartest generals in the army–or any other service–and his thoughts on the future of war are always worth listening to. Let us hope that policy makers take to heart his New York Times op-ed piece, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War,” which points out that the Rumsfeldian illusion that war can be fought successfully with lots of technology and few troops is alive and well, and ironically is being championed by some of the former defense secretary’s most acerbic critics.

“Today,” McMaster notes, “budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations.”

Far from being aberrant, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan highlighted, McMaster argues, that “war is uncertain, precisely because it is political and human” and that “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

Nor, one might add, can they successfully be waged with ground forces that are being dramatically downsized and denied basic training requirements because of pell-mell budget cutting. The demands of sequestration are fast eroding our ability to deploy ground forces, even more rapidly than they are eroding our ability to employ air and naval power. Policymakers in Washington–and even many members of the Air Force and Navy–seem to think that’s OK, because we will never have to fight another ground war. McMaster reminds us that the “never againers’” faith is at odds with history and contemporary reality.

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Pentagon Might Demolish Unused HQ

It’s never good to read the reports of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction without having a bottle of antacid nearby. On July 8, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin III, and ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford Jr., which read in part:

I was told by senior U.S. military officials that the recently completed Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) Command and Control Facility, a 64,000 square feet building and related infrastructure with a contract award value of $34 million that was meant to serve as a command headquarters in Helmand to support the surge, will not be occupied. Based on documents provided to SIGAR, it appears that military commanders in Afghanistan determined as early as May 2010 that there was no need for the facility, yet the military still moved ahead with the construction project and continued to purchase equipment and make various improvements to the building in early 2013. Based on these preliminary findings, I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped. In addition, I was told that U.S. military officials expect that the building will be either demolished or turned over to the Afghan government as our military presence in Afghanistan declines and Camp Leatherneck is reduced in size. Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling—destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a “white elephant” to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain.

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It’s never good to read the reports of the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction without having a bottle of antacid nearby. On July 8, John F. Sopko, the special inspector general, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, CENTCOM commander General Lloyd Austin III, and ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford Jr., which read in part:

I was told by senior U.S. military officials that the recently completed Regional Command-Southwest (RC-SW) Command and Control Facility, a 64,000 square feet building and related infrastructure with a contract award value of $34 million that was meant to serve as a command headquarters in Helmand to support the surge, will not be occupied. Based on documents provided to SIGAR, it appears that military commanders in Afghanistan determined as early as May 2010 that there was no need for the facility, yet the military still moved ahead with the construction project and continued to purchase equipment and make various improvements to the building in early 2013. Based on these preliminary findings, I am deeply troubled that the military may have spent taxpayer funds on a construction project that should have been stopped. In addition, I was told that U.S. military officials expect that the building will be either demolished or turned over to the Afghan government as our military presence in Afghanistan declines and Camp Leatherneck is reduced in size. Both alternatives for how to resolve this issue are troubling—destroying a never-occupied and never-used building or turning over what may be a “white elephant” to the Afghan government that it may not have the capacity to sustain.

Photos of the facility are here. To be fair, Hagel, Austin, and Dunford were not in the positions of authority they were in May 2010: Robert Gates, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal were. If the special inspector general’s report is true, and the Defense Department went ahead with building a $34 million structure that they knew at the time was not going to be used, then it is well past time that Congress use its authority to investigate what the Pentagon likely will not: A failure of leadership that came at the expense of the American taxpayer. Perhaps Gates, Petraeus, and McChrystal were not the figures who approved such waste, but they might assist in understanding how and where such a decision was made. After all, if the military can conduct lessons learned on the battlefield, its administrators can also conduct lessons learned in their scope of work. That such waste is exposed against the backdrop of civilian defense workers taking 20 percent pay cuts for the next 11 weeks simply adds insult to injury.

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Obama’s Serial Ineptness

Barack Obama’s serial ineptness in foreign policy is not only continuing; it seems to be accelerating. The most recent example comes from a story in the New York Times in which we read this:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it.

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Barack Obama’s serial ineptness in foreign policy is not only continuing; it seems to be accelerating. The most recent example comes from a story in the New York Times in which we read this:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Mr. Obama is committed to ending America’s military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and Obama administration officials have been negotiating with Afghan officials about leaving a small “residual force” behind. But his relationship with Mr. Karzai has been slowly unraveling, and reached a new low after an effort last month by the United States to begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Mr. Karzai promptly repudiated the talks and ended negotiations with the United States over the long-term security deal that is needed to keep American forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

A videoconference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Karzai designed to defuse the tensions ended badly, according to both American and Afghan officials with knowledge of it.

Remind me again, but wasn’t one of the key selling points of Mr. Obama in 2008 that he would improve America’s relations in the world; that he would sit down with other leaders and reach agreements his predecessor did not; and that Afghanistan was the “good war” that America would prevail in under his inspired leadership?

Instead, America’s image in the world is worse than ever, the leaders of many other nations have sheer contempt for the president, and the Afghanistan war is in the process of being lost. Mr. Obama seems to think a retreat substitutes for a strategy and that a defeat is the same thing as a victory.

He’s wrong on both counts.

I realize President Karzai isn’t an easy individual to deal with. But that’s always been the case, yet relations have never been this chilly. And it seems as if it hasn’t quite dawned on Obama that a president doesn’t get to choose his interlocutors.

Afghanistan embodies the Obama approach to international relations in a single case study. The president’s approach to it has been confused, contradictory, inept, weak and unsuccessful. He is a (prickly) man who is simply overmatched by events and by other leaders. And in nation after nation, we’re seeing the bitter fruits of his artlessness and incompetence. 

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Karzai’s Conundrum and the “Zero Option”

Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

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Some analysts might deduce that White House aides are leaking word that “President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a ‘zero option’ that would leave no American troops there after next year” as a ploy to pressure Hamid Karzai to be more accommodating to the U.S. in negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and in hoped-for negotiations with the Taliban. Not me. I take this president at his word. I believe the odds are growing that he will, in fact, pull all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 notwithstanding the likelihood that this will lead to a disaster, with the Taliban and their extremist allies (to include al-Qaeda) taking over, at a minimum, much of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

But then the complete U.S. pullout from Iraq has already had disastrous consequences–violence in that country is at its highest level since 2008, al-Qaeda in Iraq has again become a potent force, and Iranian influence is at an all-time high, with Prime Minister Maliki working hand-in-glove with Tehran to ferry supplies and support to the embattled Assad regime in Syria. If President Obama has any regrets about this foreseeable tragedy, he has never expressed them. Odds are that he’s simply happy U.S. troops are out of Iraq–he no doubt thinks that ending American military involvement in Iraq trumped all other considerations. So, too, in Afghanistan he appears entranced by his own rhetoric about the “tide of war” receding–and he would no doubt like to bring about an American pullout, even if the likely consequences will be dire.

The latest excuse for this pull-out talk, ironically, is something eminently reasonable that Karzai has done. I am no defender of the Afghan president who is mercurial, often impossible to deal with, and complicit in massive corruption. But Karzai was justified to pull out of nascent “peace talks” with the Taliban, who have given every indication that they have little interest in peace and much interest in enhancing their international legitimacy by opening a quasi-embassy in Qatar. But Obama has his heart set on “peace talks” with the Taliban to provide cover for an American pullout, and he is said to be furious at Karzai for throwing sand into the gears of his grand scheme.

Karzai simply can’t win here: Either he agrees to talks that legitimate a faster American pullout–or he refuses to engage in this charade, thereby angering Obama, and spurring, you guessed it, a faster American pullout.

It is Obama’s right as commander in chief to decide he wants nothing more to do with Afghanistan. But if that is in fact the decision he has reached–or at least seriously mulling–perhaps he should explain first to himself and then to the American people, and specifically to the troops that he sent to fight and bleed there, why he once considered it a “necessary” war. Why did he more than triple America’s troop presence, knowing that a certain percentage of those he deployed would not come home unharmed and that some would not come home at all, and why did he pressure America’s allies to similarly step up their commitment–why did he do all this if he decides, in the end, to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban?

Perhaps there is a good explanation for why he is seriously contemplating aborting a war effort that still has a reasonable chance of success, and thereby making worthless the sacrifices of so many American service personnel and their Afghan allies. But pique at Karzai’s refusal to sit down with the Taliban–who are committed to reimposing their totalitarian rule and have given no indication of any interest in suing for peace or giving up their alliance with al-Qaeda–won’t cut it.

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Taliban Again Prove the Obvious

If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

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If the Taliban are supposed to be making peace, their suicide bombers don’t seem to have gotten the message.

On Tuesday four suicide bombers, driving coalition-style vehicles and dressed in coalition uniforms complete with fake badges, tried to bluff their way into the presidential palace compound in Kabul–and also allegedly into the CIA headquarters at the Ariana hotel. Three security guards, along with all four attackers, wound up being killed in the ensuing shoot-out.

The Taliban proudly claimed credit for the attack while noting that it would not affect “the political track”–i.e., the peace talks which are supposed to happen in Doha. Actually such actions should affect the negotiations because they underline the obvious point–the Taliban aren’t interested in peace. They are doing everything they can to escalate the conflict. It is only a wonder that the Obama administration–desperate for a face-saving way out of Afghanistan–can possibly convince itself otherwise.

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The Taliban’s Real Goal in Doha

Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

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Well, that didn’t take long. Yesterday I predicted that peace negotiations with the Taliban would not make much progress. Today I woke up to the news that President Karzai had pulled out of the talks even before they had begun because he was concerned that the Taliban were opening a government in exile in Qatar, complete with a big banner proclaiming the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”—the name the Taliban had used for their reviled and discredited state while in power. Karzai was so perturbed that he suspended Washington-Kabul negotiations on an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan.

While suspending U.S.-Afghan talks was an overreaction he is sure to walk back in the days ahead, Karzai is right to be worried. The Taliban appear to be playing up the opening of negotiations to confer international legitimacy on themselves. As one news account noted:

Opening their Doha office with a lavish ceremony that included a ribbon-cutting and the playing of the Taliban anthem, insurgent officials said they intended to use the site to meet with representatives of the international community and the United Nations, interact with the news media, “improve relations with countries around the world” and, almost as an afterthought, meet “Afghans if there is a need.” They did not mention the Afghan government.

One suspects that the Taliban are far more interested in using these “peace talks” to enhance their credibility and standing than they are in actually negotiating any accord that would result in their disarmament. And why should they make any real concessions when President Obama has already promised that American combat troops will leave in less than 18 months? From the Taliban’s perspective, the advantage on the ground will shift in their favor once the Americans are gone.

Their only incentive to sign a deal is to ensure that the U.S. abandons Afghanistan completely after 2014—just as the U.S. abandoned South Vietnam after signing a deal with Hanoi in 1973—thereby making it easier for the insurgents to take over. Significantly, the Nixon administration excluded the Saigon government from negotiations over its fate. This time around, to its credit, the Obama administration has pledged to include Kabul in the peace talks. As a result, U.S. officials were scrambling yesterday to entice Karzai back into the talks by getting the Taliban to tamp down their gloating in Qatar.

Why bother? The odds of talks succeeding are remote. This is only an exercise in wishful thinking on the part of an administration that is determined to find a fig leaf to cover the departure of U.S. troops. As I’ve noted before, there is nothing inherently wrong with talking, but in this case proceeding with the talks when there is no sign of the Taliban making any significant concessions risks furthering the Taliban’s narrative that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan and that the Taliban are destined to take over once again.

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Managing Expectations in Taliban Talks

If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

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If you believe the headlines, peace is breaking out–or about to break out–in Afghanistan. The breathlessly relayed news of the moment is that the Taliban have agreed to open a diplomatic office in Qatar to launch peace talks with the U.S. and the Karzai government. All I can say is: Don’t get your hopes up.

There have been numerous reports in the past about peace talks starting and even preliminary contacts between the U.S. and the Taliban. (For a list, click here.) Most recently, in 2011, the Taliban actually dispatched negotiators to Qatar and talks were on the verge of starting except that, under heavy criticism, the Obama administration balked at releasing senior Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a confidence-boosting measure.

The odds that the talks this time will produce a breakthrough are not high. The best bet would be a change of heart in Islamabad: the Pakistani government, the primary patron of the Taliban, has long feared it would lose influence in Afghanistan if its proxies cut a separate deal with Kabul. Perhaps the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence–the real national-security decision-makers–are rethinking this policy because they fear the rise of fundamentalism represented not only by the Afghan Taliban but the Pakistan Taliban as well. Perhaps. But there is little sign of a substantive rethinking of Pakistan’s policy, which it has consistently pursued since the 1980s if not before, of sponsoring militant Islamist organizations within Afghanistan.

And there is little sign that the Taliban are so war weary that they are ready to give up. Why should they, when they know that, thanks to President Obama’s self-imposed timeline, the bulk of U.S. troops will be gone within a year and a half? Taliban foot soldiers in Afghanistan have suffered serious, though not crippling, setbacks, but their leaders continue to live in safety in Pakistan. If Obama were serious about pursuing negotiations, he would never have announced that timeline and he would have pushed the Taliban much harder militarily by delaying the drawdown of U.S. forces.

History shows that insurgent groups such as the IRA, the Basque ETA, the FMLN in El Salvador, and FARC in Colombia only get serious about making peace when they have lost all hope of a military victory. The Taliban cause, alas, is far from hopeless. There is good reason for Taliban commanders to imagine they might yet attain power at gunpoint–and for that reason it is unlikely that they will lay down their guns.

There is nothing inherently wrong with talking to the Taliban. At the very least it may be possible to gain useful intelligence. But if Karzai, under American pressure, makes major concessions to the Taliban, the likely result will not be peace in our time but rather the revival of Afghanistan’s civil war, because the old Northern Alliance will not accept any deal that cedes significant power to their historic enemies.

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